The secrets of taking good pictures: Step 5

A new column: Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Brit milah ceremony 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Brit milah ceremony 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The art of taking Good Pictures is very intuitive, very instinctive. Photographers sense the way that elements in the picture compliment each other;  they feel how compositions lead the eye from one area to another. There's a lot of gut reaction that occurs before they even take out the camera, then during the shooting, and reviewing the images in the computer afterward.
We usually call this process "having a good eye" and it's easy to feel discouraged when you look at your own efforts and wonder how they could be improved.
Photo Critique: Get the creative juices flowing
My mission is to help people develop a good "eye." It isn't such a mysterious quality as you may imagine, and I believe that anyone can take Good Pictures. All you need is a little understanding, a lot of practice, and some help along the way.
I have been a commercial photographer for many years, shooting models, products and architecture, and if you had asked my advice about how to take a good picture a few years ago I would have been puzzled myself! Technical things are straightforward to explain, but aesthetics seem too abstract to grasp, let alone explain.
When I began to teach I had to look carefully at what I was doing instinctively. I realized that for virtually every shot there was a process at work that could be broken down into five basic steps.
Of course some photographers are more talented and creative than others, but they still have to get the basics right. Take care of the basics yourself and your photography will improve enormously. Getting it right takes effort and requires lots of experience, but it's so much fun too.
Objective criticism requires a mature understanding
Being able to criticize you own work, to assess strengths and weaknesses, is the fifth step in my system of taking Good Pictures. Objective criticism requires a mature understanding of all four preceding steps and synthesizes them together into the complete experience we call Photography.
Commercial photographers often have an Art Director standing beside them as they work. If they are doing their job well the Art Director won't have too much to say. If the results are lacking a certain something, the Art Director will say what works, what does not work, and how it can be improved.
Critique technique
You don't need to wait till your you are looking at your pictures on the computer screen before you apply the technique that you are about to learn. Use it before you take a picture, while you are taking a picture, and again after you have taken it.
The most difficult part of criticizing your own work is being objective, since your experiences and memories can cloud your judgment.
The technique consists of three questions:
1. What works, and why?
2. What doesn't work, and why?
3. Could it be improved, and how?
You need to practice this formally, taking your time, keeping you explanations brief, and speaking out loud. Being verbally articulate is very important. The more you can put into words, the more you can put into your pictures.
Pretend that you are an Art Director and look at your own work critically. Speak out loud, asking and answering the three questions in turn. This can help dramatically improve your photography.
This picture was taken by one of my students. Let's apply the Critique technique to it.
At first glance it seems to be a straightforward picture. But my students have responded to it in very different ways. Let's see why:
1. What works, and why?
The picture captures ceremonial activity centered around a baby. By cropping in close the baby is emphasized, and the absence of adult faces also brings the focus of attention on the baby. 
2. What does not work, and why?
From the composition I know that the baby is important, however its face is blurred and not in focus in the picture.
My attention keeps being drawn to the hand in focus on the right, but I can’t help feeling the baby should be the main focus of attention.
3. Could it be improved, and how?
The baby does not appear as important as the action around it. This is confusing as it should be the center of attention. I would like to see the babies head clearly defined and in focus.
The photographer could have taken several shots and chosen one that shows the head clearly.
By using this simple technique you will be able to spot the strengths and weaknesses of your pictures while you are taking them. Eventually you will instinctively make adjustments as you shoot. People will start to accuse you of having a "good Eye", and I'm afraid you will have to agree with them!
Just to show you how the picture could have looked, I've retouched it to show the baby's head clearly defined and in focus.
By applying Critique technique you will learn to take, and to appreciate, pictures that communicate clearly. The original picture is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations.
For instance, some students saw the original picture negatively – It suggests that the baby was not seen clearly as an individual, but is only an unimportant detail in a ceremony. It could be used in a magazine article about anti-circumcision.
The retouched picture shows that the baby is clearly the focus of attention and would not be a good choice for the same article.
Send me your picture

If you are aspiring to take good pictures, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback.
Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected]

Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses at: